RAZORED ZEN

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Uncle Tom's Children


Uncle Tom’s Children, by Richard Wright, Harper & Row, 1940/1965/1989, 214 pages.

This is a collection of short stories by the author of Native Son, which I’ve also read and rated highly. Wright (1908 – 1960) was an African American born dirt poor in Mississippi. His education was haphazard but he was a quick study and became valedictorian of his high school class. He later lived in Chicago and eventually in New York City where he worked to improve the lot of African Americans, often through what turned out to be an uneasy relationship with the American Communist party.

Uncle Tom’s Children was first published in 1938 as a collection of four short stories, “Big Boy Leaves Home,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Long Black Song,” and “Fire and Cloud.” The collection was reissued in 1940 with an additional story, “Bright and Morning Star,” and with a nonfiction essay at the beginning entitled “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” which is autobiography material on Wright himself. This is the version I read.

The autobiographical material is tough to read. The daily humiliations that so many African Americans lived through in the days of Jim Crow is almost beyond imagining for those of us who have never had such experiences. How so many kept from exploding with the gathering tension is beyond me.

The five stories that follow each feature an African American character striving to live in a world where they have few choices and few freedoms, and where dignity has to be fought for every minute of every day. We have stories of young men, old women, and all ages in between. As is the nature of fiction, we join the stories primarily at moments of high drama, where the characters are pushed even further than usual. The characters meet their struggles with dignity, although they are not depicted as one dimensional saints.

White people do not fare well in these stories. They are almost all uniformly vicious and untrustworthy. There are a few white communist party members who work with the blacks but we really don’t get to meet any of them and they are mostly ciphers. The story “Bright and Morning Star” is an exception. It features a kind and caring young white woman. Although this is a somewhat one dimensional portrayal of white people, I’m sure that many black folks of that era felt it to be truth. And when I read the stories of the “Little Rock Nine,” when nine young black students had to be escorted through throngs of screaming, hateful white faces by troops of the 101st Airborne merely to attend school, I cannot doubt the truth behind many of the experiences described in these stories.

All in all, these are very powerful tales. Each one became my favorite as I read it. There is a mythic feel to all of them, and they are certainly constructing a narrative that tries to make some subjective sense out of experiences that ultimately made no objective sense. I was moved by each of these stories and characters.


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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Harvest of Death: Renegade #14, by Ramsay Thorne


I'd never heard of this series of books until I stumbled upon #14 here in a small bookstore in Maine during a visit there. I snapped it up on the sheer audacity of the cover blurb, which read: "Captain Gringo cuts a hot path of love and fury through a jungle in hell!" I read that to Lana in the store and she said that I had to get it. To confess, the blurb had me at: “jungle in hell.” It was a month or two until I got around to reading the book but I rather enjoyed the "hell" out of it. I'd give it a good 3 and 1/2 stars.

These are billed as "adult westerns." They are certainly adult, with plenty of sex, but the settings for most appear to be in Mexico or South America. The one I read was set in Mexico and had very little in the way of horses and standard gunfights in it. Captain Gringo uses a Maxim machine gun throughout. There's plenty of adventure, and the sex is pretty mild by modern standards. These books were mostly written in the 1980s. They are fairly short books, standard length for this kind of series in those days. Mine was 190 pages.

After finishing the book, I did some checking and found that the author, Ramsay Thorne, is actually Lou Cameron, who wrote regular western novels under his own name. Cameron also wrote some of the Longarm series of Adult Westerns, which are more standard westerns than the Renegade series. One report indicated that he'd written 38 in the Renegade series but I could only find 36 listed on Wikipedia. I also found 36 listed at another site so I think that is the correct number.

Although I'm not particularly a fan of the adult western type books, this one was fun and had enough non-sexual action to keep me reading. There was a fair amount of humor as well so I will probably read some more of these. According to Wikepedia, here is the entire list of the series below:

 "Renegade (1979)
 "Blood Runner (1980)
 "The Fear Merchant (1980)
 "Death Hunter (1980)
 "Macumba Killer (1980)
 "Panama Gunner (1980)
 "Death in High Places (1981)
 "Over the Andes to Hell (1981)
 "Hell Raider (1981)
 "The Great Game (1981)
 "Citadel of Death (1981)
 "The Badlands Brigade (1982)
 "The Mahogany Pirates (1982)
 "Harvest of Death (1982)
 "Terror Trail (1982)
 "Mexican Marauder (1983)
 "Slaughter in Sinaloa (1983)
 "Cavern of Doom (1983)
 "Hellfire in Honduras (1983)
 "Shots at Sunrise (1983) #20
 "River of Revenge (1983)
 "Payoff in Panama (1984)
 "Volcano of Violence (1984)
 "Guatemala Gunman (1984)
 "High Sea Showdown (1984)
 "Blood On the Border (1984)
 "Savage Safari (1984)
 "The Slave Raiders (1985)
 "Peril in Progreso (1985)
 "Mayhem At Mission Bay (1985)
 "Shootout in Segovia (1985)
 "Death Over Darien (1985)
 "Costa Rican Carnage (1985)
 "Golden Express (1986)
 "Standoff in the Sky (1986)
 "Guns for Garcia (1986)


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Friday, January 23, 2015

Good News, Bad News

Well, there's a little writing news I can share for a blog post. Not all good, not all bad. And none of it horrible.

To get the bad news out of the way, I finished an SF story at the end of last year that I think is one of the best I've ever done. The title is "Electric Love 'N Blue." I decided to try Asimov's SF Magazine with it, about the biggest market there is in SF. I got the form rejection email today. A rejection was expected but still disappointing. It would have been nice. The story will get sent out again this weekend to another market. I believe it will sell.

I actually got a rejection on a different story on January 1, 2015, so the year started out grandly. My feelings weren't badly hurt but I kind of thought maybe, if you are a magazine, you want to send our rejections on December 30/31 of one year, or at least wait until the 3rd or 4th of the new year. Who wants to get that kind of bad news on the first day of a "bright" new year?

For the good news, a blogger by the name of Col Colman put up a review of my western collection, "Killing Trail." I've never met Col but he must surely be a fellow of refined taste. For evidence of that judgement, I offer the fact that he liked my work. If you get a chance, check out his review. I certainly appreciated it. Thanks, Col.

Thanks also go to Prashant C. Trikannad for this good news because Mr. Colman first heard about "Killing Trail" on Prashant's blog. You hear about the role of "word of mouth" in the fortunes of a writer, but you don't often get to see such a clear result of that. Thanks, Prashant.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Running out of things to say?

It seems weird for a writer to say but I've been wondering lately if I'm running out of things to say, at least as far as this blog is concerned. When I first started I blogged every day or every other day with ease. A lot of the essays and chapters in my Write With Fire book got their start here on the blog. In those days, most of the stuff that went into my blog also ended up in pieces for publication, or at least for wider dissemination. Now I'm lucky if I get one post a week, and very little of it is anything that is likely to be expanded for publication.

As the days pass, I 'think' about things I might blog about. But most of the ideas that arise seem too short to make a decent post. Many of them are more in the way of observations than they are anything coherently organized. One thing that has played a role is that I'm doing less nonfiction these days, by choice. Fiction seems of less importance to share.

Right now I'm sort of considering my choices. I could shut the blog down or put it on hiatus. I don't really want to abandon it but a break might be in order. I could also just evoke a little discipline and force myself to post more frequently. I could pick a theme and post around that. I've been thinking about using the blog as a "journal" of a novel or a story. Using it to keep a record of sorts of where a story idea came from and how it is developing, and what problems or successes I run into. I could use it simply as a record of what I'm doing in writing every day, although I don't imagine that would have much interest most days to any readers.

I like the blogs that I read that talk about books and what books the blog writers are reading, but during the school year I don't read quickly enough to keep up a steady schedule of posting. I also have less time to do the research needed to properly place a book in its context.

So, there is where I'm at here at Razored Zen, 1360 posts in, for a blog that started May 16, 2006. That's where I'm at. But where am I going?

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Key to High Word Counts, And Why It's Hard for Me to Do

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me over my years as a writer is that the key to producing high daily word counts is planning. Whenever I start a day’s work knowing where a scene or story is going to go, the words come swiftly. Now, I still don’t often get 2 or 3 thousand words out of such a day, but a thousand is generally a breeze.

Unfortunately, I don’t often know where I’m going on a story at the start of a day. At least not exactly. Part of this is the nature of how I have to write due to my day job. Some of my work, like my classes, are predictable. I can schedule around those, and around the grading that results. It still means, though, that at periods like mid-term and finals I can’t maintain the continuity of daily writing.

Another work related issue is that much of my academic work load is not predictable. The research committee that I’m chair of can go 2 or 3 weeks with no submissions, then suddenly get 6 in a single week that have to be turned around. And I generally cannot predict when research and grant opportunities might arise that I need to take advantage of as part of the scholarship requirement for my job. These kinds of things mean that I’ve never written a book that didn’t have at least one long break somewhere in it, and by long break I mean at least 2 months and oftentimes 6 or more. At times when I’ve ended up taking a break of a month or more, any plan that I had previously developed for the work starts to feel very stale and unexciting, probably because I’ve just thought about it too much and every nagging little issue has come to my awareness.

The other issue for me, though, is that I seem to have an aversion to planning a story out too far in advance. This is also about the “staleness” issue.  If I know exactly what is going to happen, I just don’t care as much about the trip to get there. And since I know breaks will have to happen due to my work, some of my lack of planning is really self defense.


Some of my reluctance to plan, too, I’ve come to realize, is that I’m still more of a reader than I am a writer. Who wants to read a story where you know everything that is going to happen and can predict every twist and turn? I started out writing, not with any thought to publication, but to tell myself the stories that were bursting in my head. For the most part, that is still exactly how I feel today. I don’t want to know what comes next too far ahead. I want that joy of discovery. How about you?

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Year of Writing Non-Dangerously

Some of my writing friends have already put up their yearly reports of word counts, most notably James Reasoner, who scribed more than a million words last year, and not for the first time. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I did not do quite so well as that. In fact, one can calculate that I did about a tenth as well.

I reached 105,352 words of fiction and non-academic nonfiction. This is all material meant for publication and quite a bit of that has been published. I’ve never kept records before but I estimate that this is about the same, or maybe a little more, than my typical year.  In addition, I recorded 62,422 words in my journal, which includes all my blog posts. This is down somewhat from my usual count. This is not meant for publication, although the blog posts are for public consumption.

Of course, there is also my academic work related writing. This includes committee reports, student and faculty recommendation letters, tests, formal university emails etc. I have no way of knowing how many words this entailed, overall, but the IRB Committee that I’m chair of forced me to generate at least 15,000 words. I know that I also wrote over 100 formal letters last year for researchers and student recommendations.

All in all, I feel it was a relatively productive year for fiction and creative nonfiction. It looks like I averaged about 300 words a day, which is often a goal I shoot for. Of course, the average doesn’t reveal my general pattern, which is to write much more in the summer months when I’m off. I averaged better than a 1000 words a day through much of the summer, and during the school year there were plenty of days I didn’t write any fiction or creative nonfiction at all.

 I used to try and write a little bit of fiction even after twelve hour academic days but I think I’m past those times. It’s not like it’s going to change the world, even my world. I’m never going to be a prolific or high-production writer. There was a time when I wanted to be. But these days, I’m OK with where I am.

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